A division headlined by gun-slinging, youthful talents in Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa will now open the door for first-year signal-callers in Zach Wilson and Mac Jones to round the AFC East’s impressive list of quarterbacking talent. A division once dominated by the New England Patriots has become one of drastic change, a welcomed sight for Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets faithful who’ve spent the last two decades of their fandom holding onto hopes of only a wild-card spot year in and year out. The exciting talent under center has welcomed in new, exuberant coaching presences throughout the division, with Brian Flores (Miami) and Jets first-year bench boss Robert Saleh now in place for the long haul.
With flair in abundance under center, the adjacent presence in each team’s backfield has become an underwhelming focal point as we head into the fall. In New York and New England, where first-year starters will take the reins of the offense, a lack of punch in the run game could invite trouble as teams look to maneuver any unnecessary pressure off of their young quarterbacks’ shoulders early on in their career. While the run game will serve of less importance in Buffalo with the dual-threat dynamo in Allen set to sling the rock around the yard, a lack of elite pop in the backfield in the likes of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss has raised questions to general manager Brandon Beane’s recent approach to the position, as there really hasn’t been one at all. In Miami, Tagovailoa will look to continue to his upward trend of success with the additions of speed-threats Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, but a turnstile of running backs has left the job open for the taking just a week from kick-off.
By far the weakest division of any in football when scoping the true game-changing talent in each organization's backfield, let’s take a deeper dive into each team’s current depth chart, with an outlook for the upcoming campaign.
A 13-3 group last year, the Bills’ offense was as high-octane a unit you could find in football last fall. But in the run, they faltered. With just 104.2 rushing yards a game (24th in the NFL) and 24 attempts per game (26th in the NFL), the Bills’ struggles on the ground were masked by their explosive aerial attack. Buffalo was led by Singletary and Moss, but Allen contributed 421 yards and eight touchdowns (more than Singletary and Moss combined) himself. Singletary, in his second season out of Florida Atlantic, enjoyed an OK at best year, totaling 4.4 yards a pop for 687 yards and two scores. Moss finished with 481 yards on 4.3 a carry.
The defending AFC East champions added Matt Breida, who had a disappointing year with the Dolphins last season with 254 only rushing yards, but he’s a home run threat each time he touts the football—which could lead to an increased role if he finds himself able to get to the outside early and often this season.
As long as Allen is in town, the Bills will rely on the 2020 MVP candidate to masthead the offense through the air. For now, the Bills’ run game is there to complement the pass, but if Allen were to go down or he struggles to find his rhythm early in the season, a group unaddressed for the last couple of seasons could see their apparent lack of talent put to the forefront.
Similar to the Bills, the Dolphins also won double-digit games in 2020 while finishing in the back third in rushing, slotting 21st in the NFL averaging just 105.5 yards per game. With Myles Gaskin as their de facto lead back and veteran Malcolm Brown now in the fold, the two backs join Salvon Ahmed within a Dolphins running backs room expected by many to represent the division's most well-rounded unit. By no means will the aforementioned trio scare anyone, but if the Dolphins’ offensive line can improve enough to offer relief for Tagovailoa, we could see Gaskin become a surprise breakout candidate by mid-season.
New England Patriots
You could very easily denote Damien Harris as the clear RB1 of the entire division, especially considering the recent trade of Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams, but it’s anyone's guess as to how Bill Belichick will dish out carries in Foxboro this fall. With veteran third-down back James White still in shape to produce and first-year power back Rhamondre Stevenson coming off a fantastic preseason campaign, the Patriots—like Miami—could deploy a three-man attack with White as the primary pass-catching target, similar to the game plan Belichick used last fall with Harris, Michel, and Rex Burkhead.
New York Jets
First off, let me start by saying that Wilson has looked outstanding. Jets faithful, you should feel ecstatic about the future of your franchise.
In the backfield, however, there is work to do. While Mike LeFleur’s wide zone scheme will allow backs in Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and Michael Carter to eat in space, the success of an improved offensive line will be the key for the Jets to not represent a one-dimensional attack on the shoulders of Wilson. Carter, a fourth-round selection out of North Carolina, could progress into the workhorse option Saleh hoped he could be following an illustrious four-year career in Chapel Hill. And Johnson, who’s shown he can produce when his number is called, will look to build upon a 2020 campaign in which he amassed 254 yards on 54 carries in his second season out of Maryland.
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